Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Anegan… beneath the tree where I died

By sheer coincidence, just a few days before I saw Anegan I happened to watch the X-Files episode titled “The Field Where I Died.” In the episode, Agents Mulder and Scully try to stop a doomsday cult from committing mass suicide while Mulder is confronted with evidence that he and one of the cult members may have known each other in a past life. What I enjoyed about this episode--and in many of the best X-Files episodes--is that the viewer is left to draw her own conclusions. Was it two souls meeting again in a different life or does Mulder just believe every crazy idea that wanders in his direction? The evidence goes both ways, depending on how you look at it.

K.V. Anand pulls off that delicious X-Files-ian sense of unresolved mystery with aplomb in Anegan, the third film of his I’ve seen so far. Anand has a knack for melding masala and mystery with deeper issues. These aren’t just mindless entertainers. Ko tackled political corruption while, also, featuring some really great song sequences. Maattrraan was about the dangers of genetic engineering and Surya’s amazing--and more touching than it had any right to be--performance as conjoined twins. Now, we have my favorite Dhanush in a film that melds mystery, drama, filmi nostalgia, and… complex thoughts on the nature of our fantasies.

The film begins in Burma just before the expulsion of the Tamil population in 1962. Dhanush is Murugappa, a poor Tamil laborer who saves the peppy, wealthy, Sadhana-fringed Samudhra (Amyra Dastur) from certain death. Samudhra is smitten with her swarthy rescuer and, quite understandably, pursues him with all her might. The two fall in love over a very nice travelogue song but all is not well in Rangoon. The military seizes power; the Tamils are expelled; and Murugappa and Samudhra are forcibly parted, to tragic effect.

Or are they? Burma fades away to reveal a psychiatrist’s office. Samudrha is really Madhu, a peppy, wealthy, modern girl who works in the upper echelons of an IT company. The previous 40 minutes were all in her mind. A past life! With romantic dreams of Burma still filling her mind, Madhu latches onto Ashwin, one of the computer tech drones in her building, who happens to look just like her Murugappa.

The next section all takes place in the modern era. Ashwin is alternately annoyed at Madhu’s fantasies and attracted by her openheartedness. He finds himself falling for her almost despite himself. But a tragic accident once again sends the film careening into the past--this time Chennai in the 1980s.

Dhanush is Kaali, a 1980s hero with 1980s hair, and he’s introduced to us in a big, old-fashioned hero introduction song. There’s violence, gangsters, kiln-fired gods, and a beautiful, beatific, peace-loving heroine, Kalyani (Amyra). Again the lovers are forcibly separated, to tragic effect. But this time the consequences spill into the present. Madhu instinctively knows where to find two bodies buried under a tree. How? Why? And what does the scar-faced Inspector Gopinath (Ashish Vidyarthi) know about it?

Anand gives us four settings--mythological film, modern Chennai-set trendy film, 1960s style film, and a 1980s mass film. Each setting is treated exactly like the films of the time, down to plotting, characters, costuming. Anand does it all straight. I don’t know enough about older Tamil films to pick up specific references but having seen quite a few Hindi films of the 1960s and 1980s, I can recognize the determined, powerful 1960s heroine; the macho, forceful 1980s hero. Each was done to perfection. Amyra was delightful as the plucky 1960s protagonist, her eyes aglow with mischief and Dhanush was divine as the swaggering 1980s Kaali. And Anand picks the best of each era for the song picturizations. A 1980s hero introduction, a 1960s falling-in-love-with-flowers, a mythological sequence in nature, and a cheeky, modern club song featuring the droll lyric “YOLO,” as in “you only live once.” Ahem.

But at the heart of Anegan is this idea of fantasy. The fact that Madhu and Ashwin work for a video game company selling prefab ideas to us, that Madhu’s visions of past lives all take the form of films we’ve seen before, what does it say about us? Are we content to sit and gobble up what’s served, dwelling inside our own heads, or should we be out interacting with the world? As Madhu gets more stuck up in her own fantasies, the less appealing she becomes. It’s the Madhu who is kind to and engaged with people that is the Madhu we like. But, on the other hand, Ashwin’s complete dismissal of Madhu’s visions is also extremely unappealing. To be frank, he’s kind of a dick until he starts to see things her way… at least a little bit. Without the idealism, the peaceful “fantasy” of 1980s Kalyani to temper the 1980s Kaali, he’s nothing but a swaggering, 1980s dick. Without the romance, the emotional “fantasy” of 1960s Samudrha, the 1960s Murugappa would be just be nothing but a manual laborer. And without the spiritual element, the dreamy “fantasy” of 2010s Madhu, 2010s Ashwin has nothing but his graphics card to come home to. We can’t let fantasy dictate our lives but we can’t live without it either.

(And I couldn’t find her name but a huge shoutout to the actress playing Dhanush’s very practical younger sister. She was hilarious.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bollywood for Beginners!!

Well… I wrote a book! "Bollywood for Beginners: And the Best of Filmi Girl" is now up at the Amazon Kindle Store!

I rewrote my Bollywood for Beginners series and compiled and edited a collection of the best of my blog--100 Crore Club, Box Office Poison, etc.--and put them all together in a e-book! It was quite the journey, let me tell you. It was really a strange feeling to watch my opinions change and morph over almost ten years. And I had forgotten how important Kites was to my filmi-watching career. Meeting Hrithik really was a game changer for me.

I could see where I'd been reading a lot of theory, where I'd taken that writing class, where I was feeling really depressed… ten years is a long time, friends.

Anyways, I hope you enjoy re-living those years with me. This blog has been an important part of my life. ♥


Well, Akshay may not have the dialogue delivery skills of Amjad Khan but may I state a tentative excitement for this one? Akshay is really rocking that salt-and-pepper look. Dang!

I'm not the biggest Shruti Hassan fan but she has grown on me a bit, especially after her performance in 3. I'll be curious to see how she does here.

Also… did we all see the poster for Tanu Weds Manu Returns?! Eee! Kangana, Madhavan, Deepak Dobriyal, Jimmy Shergill, and Dhanush in one movie?! Clearly this is being made for me. Clearly.

I really, really liked Anand Rai and Himanshu Sharma's work on both the first film and Raanjhana so I have high hopes for this sequel. Both of those films captured something… they weren't the broad hero-giri masala that gets trashed everywhere by critics but they definitely weren't aping Miramax-y Hollywood films either. They felt very fresh, were well cast, used music very well, and gave me a lot to think about. Especially Raanjhana. Hats off to you, sirs!

And confidential to Asim, it doesn't look like Maddy's Irudhi Suttru is out yet and a quick search revealed no release date. Maybe somebody else has more information?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Yennai Arindhaal: The Story of a Man

In Yennai Arindhaal, our salt-and-pepper haired Ajith plays Sathyadev, a man faced with a crucial life choice: is he going to channel his rage towards kicking bad guy ass or is his rage going to warp him into becoming a bad guy himself? As Sathyadev says in the film, it’s a fine line separating criminal and cop.

The plot unfolds with a standard pre-interval flashback. We start in the present day with sassy IT consultant Thenmozhi (Anushka Shetty) flying home from visiting her sister in America. She happens to be seated next to a studly older guy--Sathyadev (Ajith!). Obviously Themozhi falls for him immediately. (I mean, come on! It’s AJITH!) But the stud is acting suspiciously. Is he stalking her?! Protecting her?! She confronts him at a coffee shop but before getting any answers they’re interrupted by a gang of rowdies led by some guy named Victor (Arun Vijay), who seems to know our salt-and-pepper Sathyadev.

We flashback to Sathyadev’s past and learn that his beloved father was killed by gangsters and his mother passed away--presumably from grief--soon afterwards. What was young Sathyadev to do? We flash forward to a slightly older Sathyadev in jail. He befriends another prisoner about to be released… Victor! The two become quite close, to the point of Victor vouching for Sathyadev to join his gang.

(The friendship is really cemented in the song “Adhaaru Adhaaru”, a perfect use of a wedding song if I ever saw one. I loved this cam version with the crowd in the theater just going crazy!)

But… it turns out Sathyadev hadn’t chosen a life of crime after all! He was undercover!

Victor is betrayed. The gang goes down in a brutal blood bath but Sathyadev lets Victor live, telling him that he knows Victor has the potential to be good.

Sathyadev takes down a lot of gangsters. Taking down gangsters is his entire life until he meets Hemanika (a wonderfully mature Trisha). Hemanika is a professional career woman and single mother. She runs her own dance studio, performs concerts, and takes care of her little daughter Isha (Baby Anikha). Sathyadev loves her independence and spirit; Hemanika seems to find his tenacity and open-heartedness towards her just irresistible. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s AJITH. The two share a wonderful chemistry.

Unfortunately, Hemanika doesn’t live to see the second half of the film and Isha is left with Sathyadev, who takes his new responsibilities as a father very seriously and essentially gives Isha the childhood experiences he wishes he’d had with his father. Still his work weighs heavily on his mind and inevitably he must return to Chennai to do what only he can do--kick bad guy ass.

It’s in this final stretch that Thenmozhi comes back into the picture. Sathyadev figures out that she’s the next target of some gangsters that he’s chasing and fate plays itself out for Victor and Sathyadev.

The film was very satisfying on a number of levels but the biggest surprise for me were Ajith’s three leading ladies: Anushka Shetty, Trisha, and Baby Anikha. I was told that Gautham Menon's lady characters are always like this. I plan on finding out more because all three roles were so well-written and well-acted that I ended up really caring about what would happen to them. Anushka Shetty was a firecracker. As Thenmozhi she played the kind of “got her shit together” career woman who will burn a dude so fast at an arranged marriage meeting for surreptitiously trying to find out if she can cook that it will make your head spin. SHE AIN’T GOT TIME FOR YOUR BULLSHIT, BRO! In the hands of another director (or actress), Themozhi would be some spoiled rich bitch needing to be brought down but here we clearly understand that just because she’s wealthy and knows she’s beautiful, it doesn’t mean that she’s not also selfless and caring. Thenmozhi may be quick with her insults but she’s also quick to do the right thing.

It’s been a long while since I’ve seen Trisha on screen and in the intervening years she’s become such a lovely, mature woman. I never cared for her girlish avatar but I loved her as the independent, single mother. She’s not going to throw herself at some guy if it means her baby will suffer. Even if she really, really likes the guy and even if that guy looks like Ajith. Family comes first.

And Sathaydev’s relationship with them was so caring and respectful and, dare I say it--manly. I like machismo (on screen) as much as the next girl but there was something really refreshing about Ajith’s manliness. He wasn’t boyish or coquettish or teasing. He wasn’t demanding female attention outright or even passive-agressively whining that women weren’t paying enough attention to his navel-gazing pain. No, Ajith as Sathyadev was a real man. A real man who shows that he cares about women by treating them like fucking human beings with brains and feelings and not objects to be chased after.

Let me tell you the moment that Sathyadev won me over. I’ll start with a little flashback to the time I gave up on dating. A guy I’d been out with a couple times started hounding me to send him pictures. “There are some on my blog,” I told him. “I looked at that,” he replied. “It’s just Indian pop culture stuff.” Just Indian pop culture stuff. JUST INDIAN POP CULTURE STUFF?! That was it for me. I was done. Anybody who really cared about me would never see all this writing as “just” anything. It’s important to me. By the same token, when Sathyadev goes to see Hemanika perform, he watches her and is interested. He compliments her dancing at the end. He doesn’t just say, “You were beautiful.” HE TALKS TO HER ABOUT HER DANCING. I mean, game, set, match. I fell for Sathyadev right there and then. And I believe Hemanika did, too.

And then there’s Baby Anikha. What does it say about how mistrusting we, as a society, become of men that I had some initial misgivings over Sathyadev becoming her foster parent. I didn’t want to suspect our salt-and-pepper hero of pulling a Humbert Humbert; I shouldn’t suspect our salt-and-pepper hero of pulling a Humbert Humbert; there was nothing in his performance to even hint in Humbert Humbert’s direction but there you go. The thought crossed my mind.

And it’s because the thought crossed my mind that I think it was so wonderful to see their father-daughter bonding play out in the song, “Unakenna Venum Sollu.” Sathyadev doesn’t treat her like a little girl, he treats her like a person. A child. She runs and plays and scampers around. He wants to show her the wonder of life, to make sure that her mind isn’t poisoned by the losing of a parent the way his was. It was really, really touching. (And Baby Anikha is that rare creature--the charming child actor! I’m very glad that the film never showed her in peril. I wouldn’t want that image and I really thank director Gautham Menon for never giving it to us.)

Sathyadev, Victor… and Isha. All of them lost somebody important to violence. Will the cycle of violence continue? Are they the ones to continue it? The ending was actually a bit ambiguous on that point. Not Isha but Sathyadev. He crosses a line, is pushed too far. Will he make it back in one piece?

So, there you have it. Yennai Arindhaal is a good film. It has good music, good acting, and a nice story. It may not be flashy or full of meta-narrative gimmicks but one thing is for sure: if every man treated women like Sathyadev does--with caring and respect--instead of emulating Ricky Bahl or some “cool” Hindi rom-com hero, the world would be a better place. No, two things. Hair dye is overrated.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Bombay Velvet trailer is here...

Um… it looks okay? Nothing we haven't seen before, I'm afraid. Can we stop with the nostalgia period pieces? PLEASE?!

Whatever. I'd much rather watch this:

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

For no reason...

I was just reminded of how much I loved Asin in Ghajini and thought I'd remind you, too.

What a great character. What a great film. A good heroine is just… ♥

Monday, March 16, 2015

Revolver Rani: I really wanted to like this one.

How depressing that the first time I sit down to watch a newish Hindi release in a while and it turns out to be the epitome of everything I hate about the direction Bollywood is taking. Yes, I'm talking about Revolver Rani. What should have been a fun, larger-than-life masala romp with a gun-toting lady hero turned out to be a soggy, irony-loaded, no larger than a TV screen, male-gazey stale fart. This film is seriously everything wrong with Bollywood right now. A strong female lead that's really neither. Masala buried under layers and layers of ironic dick quotes. Bland "Hollywood-style" filmmaking so we all know the film is coded as "classy" entertainment not that trash the peons watch.

Here's what was good about Revolver Rani: Kangana Ranaut.

Literally everything else in this film sucked, from the casting to the story to the direction to the cinematography to the costuming. It was so bad that not even Kangana--and you know I love Kangana--could keep me watching after the Michael Jackson impersonator comes on about halfway through the film. I reached for that off button so fast I might as well have been "Revolver" Filmi Girl, fastest remote control operator in America.

On it's surface, Revolver Rani is a story about Alka Singh (Kangana Ranaut) battling it out with a rival warlord-politican to see who will be boss of a small city in Uttar Pradesh. There is a tragic backstory, a kindly uncle, lots of sunglasses… and if that's all Revolver Rani had been, I think I might have been satisfied. Throw in an item and some comedy; some ultra-violence and a weepy death scene and call it day. There is more than enough of an edge gained by simply showing Kangana as the hero.

That is not the direction this film went. The main thrust of the story is not Alka's battles for revenge and power but Alka's love for glib, average looking Rohan Mehar (Vir Das). For the life of me, there was NO REASON for Alka to be so obsessed with this dude. They had no on screen chemistry. He was unattractive. AND he was super-duper glib and made fun of her and literally nobody around her liked him. SO WHY?!!!! I'll tell you the only reason I could figure out--"Rohan" is just male fantasy fulfillment of being loved by a powerful woman. Essentially the same trope as Knocked Up, etc.: Ugly Guy-Hot Wife. This isn't a film about Alka as much as it's a film about Alka loving schlubby Rohan for no reason that was apparent to me.

Now, if Rohan had been played by an oiled-up Ranveer Singh in full charm mode? Shirtless Shahid Kapoor doing exotic dance moves? An electric Varun Dhawan? Okay, now we're talking. Then it would make sense that Alka couldn't think straight around him and it would signal that at least some thought had been given to the female viewer. But Vir Das? Seriously? I'm sure he's a very nice guy and I liked him just fine as a comedian in Go Goa Gone but, come on!!! Was Kunal Khemu unavailable? Any one of the thousands of struggling male models littering the cafes in Bandra? Was Vir Das that big of a name draw that you couldn't have open casting for a male model to play the hot guy who drives Alka crazy????

Oh, but wait. That would mean that Alka was supposed to be our audience POV character. She wasn't. The schlubby guy was. And the schlubbier he looks, the more the dumbass film guys who have a love/hate obsession with powerful women that are the audience for this film can identify with him.

And poor Kangana. Nobody seems to have told her that this was all supposed to be "ironic." There were so many little moments where "Alka" was made to look stupid and uneducated and they were mean moments. We were supposed to be laughing at her. Like when she shows up in this chainmail bra and proudly states that all her clothes were made in Italy. Okay, it could have been a great moment but the focus is on "Rohan's" dumbfounded reaction to her statement rather than Alka's triumph of going from "girl who had to watch her mom get raped every night by the asshole who shot her father" to "Proud Lady Boss Who Wears a Chainmail Bra That Can Stop A Bullet Also It's From Italy."

And then Alka gives a terrible interview "in English" and… I'm sure both things were sold to Kangana as playing up her (perceived) weaknesses in the media as triumph (the English, the fashion) but it wasn't. It was just mean and making fun of her.

AND FINALLY. Maybe, maybe I could have overlooked the Vir Das, schlubby guy fantasy thing if the cinematography and direction and music hadn't been so mediocre. It was like watching a made-for-TV movie. All static mid-range action shots and talking heads. No zazz, no glamor, no motion, no creative camera moves or tricks. NO DRAMATIC ZOOMING IN!! And the picturizations… okay, now, would a uneducated girl from a dusty, out of the way Uttar Pradesh city really have Titanic as her be-all-and-end-all example of a romantic film??? Not at least DDLJ or something??? REALLY?? I know Titanic was a popular film but it just didn't feel right to me that a) she would even care enough about romantic movies to have a favorite and b) that her favorite would be the 20 years ago English language Titanic. GAH!

So, yeah. Alka gets pregnant by the schlub and insists on getting married to him and there's a Michael Jackson impersonator and that's where I peaced out.

What a waste of her talent.

Somebody make a real Revolver Rani movie starring Kangs. One where she is the hero and POV character instead of just a fetish object built up only to be kicked down and ground into the dust. And cast somebody actually attractive to women as her romantic love interest. Mmmmkay?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What?? A POST?!

Hello, friends!! I'm so sorry it's been a while since I've written and I feel like I should at least partly explain why. First of all, I got quite ill with the flu last month and it took me a long time to get back to my normal energy levels, even after I went back to work. It didn't help that we've had a difficult winter in my part of America and a long winter makes me feel very depressed. So, even if there had been a lot of good releases, I don't think I would have felt much like writing about them anyways.

Which brings me to my second point. Secondly, we're in the middle of the filmi fallow time. I wish the studios wouldn't do this but… well, what can one do? The only film I've been interested in is Badlapur and unfortunately it left the theater before I could see it.


In the next couple months the films I'm looking forward to are Broken Horses, Furious 7, and then… Gabbar in May if that's still the expected release date. I'm also mildly intrigued by Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!.

Anyways, I should also mention one of the reasons I had a lack of motivation to write was that I was contacted by a graduate student studying "International" Bollywood fans. For some reason it made me really depressed. The navel-gazing pointlessness of academic "fan studies"; being one of the few international fans who isn't an SRK-loving rom-com-loving "convert" but knowing that for better or worse that image is "our" public face; and just the sense of entitlement among some international fans that we "deserve" access to these movies even if that means intruding on desi spaces. (Uh, no, my desire to see a movie does not trump a minority group's desire to have a separate cultural space outside of majority white space.) It just dredged up all the reasons I stopped interacting with most of "international" fandom in the first place and made me depressed to be reminded of all the SRK blah blah blah romance Om Shanti Om hilarious camp wigs nonsense I've tried to avoid for my own mental health.

But that said, I came across a great quote in a book of "newly discovered" fairy tales from Bavaria I'm reading:

"A world without fairy tales and myths would be as drab as life without music." --Georg Trakl

And film without myth (or music) certainly is drab. That's for sure.

Why waste time on drab films when I can get everything I want and more in a single J-Pop music video.

Well, friends, if I can get my act together I would like to re-watch some of the 1990s films I saw ages ago and see how they're different to me now. I can never forget that moment when I realized I'd completely misunderstood Dil Se. I wonder how many other movies there are like that for me…

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